In January, a small group of U.S. Marines at a remote base near the village of Shurakay in northern Helmand province was running low on ammunition after days of fighting. The road in was too dangerous for a resupply convoy, and there were so many Taliban fighters that a helicopter crew trying to fly in would have been at serious risk.
Still, the Marines soon heard the soft thwack of rotor blades. They looked up as a glimpse into the future of aviation eased into a hover, then gently descended until a pallet of ammunition dangling beneath it touched the ground. The cargo hook released itself, then the unmanned K-MAX helicopter rose, turned and flew off.
The K-MAX, which is the only drone cargo helicopter in the U.S. military’s fleet, made two more runs to the embattled outpost, dropping off more supplies each time.
It wasn’t a stunt: Over the past 16 months, two K-MAX helicopters that were sent to Afghanistan as an experiment have delivered 3.2 millions of pounds of cargo across Helmand and flown more than 1,000 missions. That has reduced the number of supply convoys needed on the province’s bomb-infested roads, has eased the workload and risk for helicopter and Osprey crews, has saved money and has provided real-world proof that drones are practical for much more than surveillance and missile strikes.
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The combat-zone test was supposed to last just six months, but in March, the Marine Corps extended it indefinitely, citing the K-MAX’s success in delivering cargo and keeping Marines in trucks off dangerous roads.
In the fast-growing world of unmanned aircraft, the K-MAX’s success is a significant step toward what’s expected to be a host of new military and civilian roles for cargo drones, said Peter Singer, director of the 21st Century Defense Initiative at the Brookings Institution research center and author of “Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century.”
“Everyone has framed discussion of drones as being about surveillance, and that’s one of the models, but they won’t be only that,” he said.
Indeed, surveillance seems likely to become no more than a niche for drones. Last year, Congress ordered the Federal Aviation Administration to open the airways to the commercial use of drones by 2015. The FAA foresees there will be 10,000 commercial drones flying by 2020. Predicted uses include carrying cargo, lifting construction materials into place, undertaking rescue missions in remote mountains or stormy seas, evacuating the wounded from battlefields and even, some experts half-joke, delivering pizza.
Analysts’ estimates of the commercial market for unmanned aircraft range as high as $94 billion in the next few years.
“The national airspace will be opened, and now that’s not an if, it’s when,” Singer said. “The importance of the K-MAX is that it provides proof of concept that there is a potential commercial use, not just a military one. It’s the best current example of cargo movement by an unmanned aircraft. It’s working a lot, working well and doing so in a pretty tough environment.”
The implications, Singer said, may be extrapolated by looking back at the history of manned aviation. That started with wartime surveillance, then moved onto carrying improvised, then standard, armaments in World War I. After the war, airplanes expanded into moving freight and passengers. The K-MAX and similar competitors are the first shift for drones away from surveillance and air-delivered weapons into freight and the rest of the future for drones, he said.
The Marines also think it’s breaking ground for new drone uses, inside and outside the military.
“It might take some time in the United States for a civilian application, but the crews here are proving it works and that it’s incredibly reliable and cost-effective,” said Maj. Daniel Lindblom of Alexandria, Va., who oversees the various unmanned-aircraft programs the Marines run in Afghanistan. “It’s just a matter of time.”